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Monday, November 29, 2010

My First Time In Prison

It was my first time in prison, and I was in denial. I was in denial for a variety of reasons. First, I was in denial that we, as an acting company commissioned by The Public Theatre of New York, were about to perform an almost uncut version of Measure for Measure in front of anyone with only sixteen days of rehearsal. Second, I was in denial that we were actually going to be performing the play for the first time in front of the inmates of the Arthur Kill correctional facility on Staten Island.

But denial usually stops when reality comes crashing into you like a sidewalk-hogging New Yorker who shoulder checks you hard to assert their metropolitan dominance. As we pulled into the parking lot at Arthur Kill, our stage manager reminded us that we were to leave everything except our IDs in the car. We all stripped ourselves of our keys and wallets and put them in our bags. Moments later we were all in the parking lot waiting to be summoned to the front of the building to begin the process of, uh, processing.

It was only 4:45 p.m., but the late-fall sun was racing through the clouds in a seeming race to be done with the day. Consequently, the cloudy afternoon sky turned into a strange fluffy layer-cake of bright orange and pink behind the razor-wire topped gates of the prison. As we stood there waiting, we could see inmates traversing the yard bundled up in all green. I hadn’t imagined inmates in green. I’d imagined either construction-vest orange or Shawshank Redemption blue. The green made them look like a gang of Central Park employees on a massive conservation assignment. It was about at this time that I said, “Is anyone else nervous that we’re going to be acting just a few feet in front of convicted criminals?” Everyone kind of laughed and Will Harper, our Claudio mused, “Well, this is a medium security prison. I imagine there are a lot of a folk up in here that were just, ‘In The Car’. You know? Like, ‘Yeah, my cousin Mario was driving and he had a bunch of guns and drugs with him and I was IN THE CAR with him soooo…” I laughed hard and we proceeded to act out a half dozen improvised scenarios of “In The Car” all ending with the hapless accessory to the crime having been completely innocent other than having been “In The Car”. The lightened mood made me feel better. Our director, Michelle Hensley, who has been doing this for years also chimed in, “Now I’ve never been to a New York prison, but in my twenty years in Minnesota, we’ve never had any problems at all. They are usually incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to see the work and are very polite.” I looked at her and joked, “Yeah. But this is New York. This is definitely not a Prairie Home Companion Prison.”

Not long after, we were waved over to the front of the prison. We all ambled up toward the door and our costume designer, Vivian, began running up to us with extra costume pieces, throwing them over our heads or stuffing them into our pockets. “These are pieces we’ve added in the last few days and so they weren’t on the pre-approved list of items we could bring in. But you can bring them in as part of your personal outfits. They just can’t come in as “props” or “costumes” because they weren’t on the list.” So we all looked a little silly as we began to accessorize with chunky ropes, sweaters, and other mismatched costume and prop pieces to head into the processing lobby. I also thought it was funny how the system worked. They guards had JUST seen all of these items and vetoed them for entry because they were not on a pre-approved list. Now, just moments later, apparently these items would be fine to come in, as long as they were haphazardly draped around our necks or hanging out of our pockets. That’s just some crazy bureaucratic bullshit at its’ finest right there.

As we entered the front room of the prison, we all had to present our IDs for inspection and, like the airport, take off any belts or metals and subject our jackets and coats to inspection. Vivian, our costume designer, was made to take her keys out to the parking lot and hide them under the wheel well of her car because she had an electronic door-opening button on her keychain. No outside electronics allowed. As each of us was processed, we were stamped with a kind of translucent yellowish goo on our right hands. As we stood there waiting for everyone to get processed, we noticed that it wasn’t drying. “What the hell is this stuff?” we all began to wonder out loud. As large numbers of us got processed, we were then taken into a kind of “safe room” that served as a conduit between the outside world of society and the inside world of the prison. It was a square room with two sets of thick red metal sliding doors controlled remotely from another glassed in room. A security officer from that adjacent glass room opened the door to the lobby and a bunch of us went in. The door slid closed. “I need you all to hold up your hands that got stamped” an amplified voice said through a speaker in the upper corner of the room. We all did as we were asked. The light in the chamber went blinked off and the odd brown glow of a black light came on. Every piece of white clothing anyone was wearing became a bright blue beacon of light and, sure enough, all of our hands were slathered in a brightly lit glowing glop of yellow. If a picture were taken, we’d probably look like a bunch of kids packed into a dance club pumping our fists in the air to some new LCD Soundsystem track. But a moment later the fluorescent lights popped back on and the door to the inner prison silently dislodged and slid back to allow us in.

It was about this point, as we entered into the caged inner world of the prison, that I began to think about the show itself and the props that we’d been using for it. Items on the approved list that were actually ALLOWED into the prison included; a Billy Club, a variety of percussion mallets, a gavel, an iron key chain with prop “keys” made out of thick metal rebar, and a variety of ropes. I began to imagine every way in which a renegade inmate might be able to quickly commandeer one or many of these items and begin a murderous rampage through the visitor’s center of the prison where we were to perform. I imagined Will Harper making his first entrance as Elbow, the constable, twirling his baton. In my mind’s eye, the image of thick and hardened criminal, let’s call him Mike, appeared. Mike’s muscled up from years of relentless weight training in the yard. Mike’s in year fifteen of forty year sentence and he’s been feeling lately like there’s nothing left to lose and as he stares at that club, he becomes aroused by it’s crushing potential and it’s proximity to his free and powerful hands. I imagined Mike, as Will launched into his hilarious bit about catching his wife in a brothel, launching out of his front row chair and wrenching the baton out of Will’s hand and in a lightning fast motion spinning and jumping on top of one of the other prisoners, his nemisis Rick maybe, and being able to thoroughly beat the brains out of Rick’s surprised head. In the confusion that I imagined would follow, the security guards would run over and try to pry the murderous berzerker off of his now dead victim while out and out chaos took hold in the room. It would be at this point that the sex-starved criminals would begin running after the women of the cast and dragging them into the corners of the visitors center for horrifying gang rapes. All the while, I imagined I’d curl into a ball on the floor under one of the enormous Friar’s robes and pretend to be a pile of costumes while I listened to the horror around me and tried to reconcile myself to the fact that I would, should I survive the night, never sleep again.

The other nightmare that ran through my head was much more specific and personal. I imagined being on stage and saying my first line, “If the duke, with the other dukes, come not to composition with the King of Poland, why then all the dukes fall upon the king.” That line is a bitch. I’m classically trained and I know what I’m doing with Shakespeare and I had to sit with that line for ten minutes before I figured out that Lucio is just saying, “I bet the reason that the duke’s gone is that all the dukes are conspiring with the King of Poland. If they’re not, then they’re probably meeting up to plan to assassinate our king.” But even when I put it into the “easy read” translation like that, it’s still a big and heavy thought. In any event, I imagined a hardened and angry inmate thinking, “I hate the way this character uses such bullshit language. I hate that guy. I’m going to break his face.” And in the middle of one of my speeches, having someone jump up and tackle me and while punching my teeth in scream, “TALK LIKE A PERSON!! TALK LIKE A FUCKING PERSON!!” Suffice it to say, these were not my usual pre-show thoughts.

I tried to breathe through those thoughts and the actual visitor’s center itself helped me do just that. The room was warm and expansive and included a wall of vending machines, a sectioned off play area for children, and walls painted with friendly Disney characters and murals of the New York City skyline. It was not exactly what you would imagine as the backdrop to a horrible prison revolt and a nightmarish exploration of negative human potential. I relaxed a bit. The crudely drawn Mickey Mouse on the wall seemed to be saying, “There’s nothing to be afraid of Carson!” And he was right. As I thought about children, I thought about each of these men, not as stereotypes of bad people, but of specific human beings with specific families and specific sets of given circumstances that brought them into this prison. And then I thought about the fact that it is entirely possible one of the reasons they ended up in prison is that they were never really able to fully put themselves in someone else’s shoes or understand that there were choices available to them other than the ones they made. And, in a fairly self-aggrandizing way, I began to think nobly on the theatre and it’s function. I began to think about the way the early myths were meant not just as storytelling, but also as a means of socialization. The myths put people into situations that would flummox the best of us for understanding how to behave and then showed us choices that either worked or didn’t. But that’s an essay for another time. The point is that I thought, “There are a lot of things that are going to be said in this play that are going to be incredibly resonant for this audience.” All of a sudden I thought about one of my first lines, “Not to be weary with you, he’s in prison.” The line sat in my chest like a weight for the first time. I then thought, “Holy shit, three quarters of this play takes place in prison.” This is going be heavy.

As we walked through the room, running lines, feeling our voices out in the space, and calming our own nerves, different representatives of The Public showed up. Barry Edelstein, the head of the Shakespeare initiative, and Oskar Eustice, the artistic director of the theatre, both came for our first show. A few minutes before the inmates were brought in, the superintendent of the facility gathered us up and made some announcements. He was a professional and good humored man in his late fifties with a head of straight grey hair and glasses. He spoke with a slight Staten Island drawl. “So, we’re really glad to have you. This is clearly, a big deal for the inmates here. I hope everything’s been OK so far. Everyone get in OK? Not too big of a deal to get in? Good. Now wait ‘till you try to get out.” He smiled at his own gallows humor. We all smirked and nodded like, “Jesus.” He went on, “Now we understand that because of your performance, you’re probably going to want to make some sort of direct contact with inmates. We really want that to be as brief as possible. The big reason is, we don’t want people passing inmates drugs from the outside. We understand, it’s theatre and you may need to for your performance but we really do want it to be kept to a minimum. Keep in mind; with an event like this, the men usually have to be stripped when it’s over to make sure there wasn’t something passed to them. We’re not going to do that after this event. So, you know, you guys are kind of setting up how this is going to work for the next group that comes in. If this goes OK with you, then we can keep doing this and it gives the men something to look forward to. And you know, these guys all signed up for this. No one’s here against his will. So they should be pretty attentive. So…that’s all. Thanks again for coming. We hope you enjoy yourself. Thanks.”

Again, I began to think of these guys not in generalized terms, but in terms of their specific reality. And those specifics became even more pronounced as they began to enter the room from the yard. Each prisoner was frisked and patted down as they came into the room and it took a solid thirty minutes for the sixty or so guys to be brought in. The variety in age and race was pronounced. There were prisoners in their late fifties and there were prisoners as young as twenty. Black, white, tall, skinny, and fat. It was striking that any one of them could just change clothes and be on the street with me and I would never know in a million years that they were “criminals”.

The presence of the inmates weighed on a few of our female actresses. One of them became almost overwhelmed and said, “I just feel them so much.” Another felt that they, as criminal men, wouldn’t be able to relate to her characters’ point of view because her character is essentially, victimized by a criminal man in the play. Everyone was kind of processing how things were going to go down in their own way. I had kind of switched over into my usual actor-mode. My mind began to simply process through the script, the lines, the scenes, the actions, the blocking, and the hundreds of little things I needed to remember to do in the next few hours to hold up my responsibility to the piece.

At places I took my seat directly to the right of one of the prisoners in the front row. Barry Edelstein took the floor and introduced The Public’s Mobile Unit and explained a brief history of the Public Theatre and of Joe Papp and his dream of bringing Shakespeare to all New Yorkers. Then Michelle stood up to speak a bit. Michelle is about five feet tall and despite her black motorcycle boots, her inherent softness, kindness, and generosity shines out of her like a light. She cut a fascinating figure, juxtaposed against the assorted population of men in the room. She gave them an idea of what the play was about to her. “This play is a lot about what makes good justice and what makes real mercy. And I think the play says that to know, you really have to put yourself in someone elses’ place. And in this play, I think you’ll see how a lot of characters are put in each others’ places and then they have to see how they would act if those roles were reversed.” I looked around the room at what seemed to be very attentive and understanding faces listening to Michelle and I wondered what thoughts might be going through their heads when being spoken to about compassion. I admitted to myself I hadn’t really thought of Measure For Measure as a play about compassion. I’d thought of it as a play about lust, responsibility, justice, and power. But, as I often say, every fortunately composed piece of art speaks to the fact that we’re all in it together and that no one is alone. And Measure For Measure does have that message woven into its bloodied and lecherous fabric too. Michelle retreated to a back wall and Jackie, our percussionist, struck the opening gavel beats to commence the play.

The next few hours went by quickly and actually, fairly uneventfully. I have to say that my actor mind was at work a lot of the time. I was disappointed with the lack of sound quality in the room and the buzzing of the vending machines and the loud whirring of the fans forced me to act loudly and slowly in a way that made me feel artificial and, well, bad. I began to obsess about our lack of rehearsal time and I began to feel guilty that these prisoners were seeing our first public performance of this play in what I considered it’s under-rehearsed state. “Man, these are the people that should be seeing us really rock this play.” I thought. “We want them to really like Shakespeare. We want them to really get it! We don’t even get it yet!” But as the play went on, many of the men became more and more vocal with their responses. Not surprisingly, they came to really identify with my character, Lucio and with Rob Campbell’s Angelo. It was clear that they identified with the kind of rough-talking slanderous motormouth that Lucio is. And it was clear that they felt a great deal of sympathy for Angelo’s desire to do the right thing, but also to succumb to the temptation to abuse his newly appointed power for his own personal gratification. When the Duke at the end of the play busts Lucio and an officer takes him into custody, one of the guys said, “Oh damn. They got my boy!” I turned and looked at him and nodded solemnly like, “They did. Ah fuck. They did.”

When we finished the play, two things surprised me. First, they absolutely knew that play was over. They were following it fully and they understood the language and what was happening and when the last image had been established, they understood that the play was done. Secondly, they all instantly sprang to their feet to give us a standing ovation. They seemed genuinely happy and fulfilled and gratified to have been given this play. And it hit me in that moment what had transpired. We’d given them a gift. With our time and talent we’d created a show to give them. Without judgment of who they are or what they’d done, we’d given them a wild story, full of amazing thoughts and language to think about, mull over, and process. And they’d appreciated it. They had thoroughly received it in the spirit in which it was given. And, they’d given us a gift too. They’d signed up to be our audience. They’d given us their undivided attention and enthusiasm. They stood and clapped for a long time as we bowed, circled, bowed again, and retreated to the Superintendents’ office to change back into our street clothes.

As we changed, Oskar Eustis came into the dressing room to congratulate us. After a few hugs and “Good jobs” we ended up talking about pacing and how to make Act Five clearer. Soon we transformed into just theatre people in a typical post-show conversation, talking about how to really convey the inherent cacophonous insanity of Measure For Measure’s final act. But then I had a moment where I was thinking about where we were. We were in the Superintendent’s office of a major prison. And it hit me that Oskar had taken the time to drive an hour out of the city to support us as we all ushered in this project together. I detected a real pride in him that he was picking up the mantle from Papp and bringing Shakespeare directly to people who would have no other opportunity to experience it. It’s a noble idea and I was proud to be part of it’s actualization. My first acting engagement with the Public Theatre is fortuitously, exactly the kind of work that I want to do and exactly the way that I want to do it. I’m so aligned with the mission of this project and I’m thrilled to be part of it. I think we should expand it from prisons and shelters too. I think we should do it in the basement of the Empire State Building for the custodial staff of the building. I think we should do it in high school gymnasiums. I think we should do it anywhere that people who might not otherwise get to experience the live theatre, could get to.

The way out of Arthur Kill, thankfully, was not as difficult at the Superintendent had implied earlier. We gathered up our set pieces from the visitor’s center and many inmates called out words of praise to us. “Thanks for coming you guys!” and one guy shouted out to Rob, “Rob Campbell, you’re the truth!” No matter how that was meant, it was a profound compliment. But it does beg the question, “In what way is Rob Campbell the truth? Was it because he acted so truthfully? Or because Angelo is such a complicated and hard-core character and Rob had played him?” Something to chew on as we made our way through the halls with our iron gates and coat hooks. We all ended up again in the little metal and glass chamber with our hands up, still day-glow-gooped and illuminating brightly under the black light. Moments later we were outside.

The air felt clean and crisp in our noses and as the van pulled up we all checked in and talked about what had just happened. It was fascinating to hear everyone talk about what the impact of having criminals inside a prison watch our play felt like. It was both heavier and lighter than we’d imagined. For most of us, it was absolutely our first experience inside of a prison and was plenty of food for thought. And speaking of food, we were starving. We all climbed into the van and sandwiches were distributed amongst the cast. We all began to silently devour our meals as the van lurched out of the driveway and toward the distant Manhattan skyline in front of us. All of us eating…and processing.

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